Editing down the Catholic “core” (updated)

Anyone who is familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church knows that this volume takes the words “Thou shalt not kill” very, very seriously. Thus, it is also crystal clear in its affirmation of the early church’s rejection of abortion.

Honest. Here is a sample:

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. …

Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. …

Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,” “by the very commission of the offense.” …

It’s hard to get more serious than that.

The issue, in a recent Religion News Service report, is whether this makes this ancient, unchangeable teaching, which has instant and eternal consequences for those who do not repent, a “core” teaching of the Catholic faith. The same is true of several other issues linked to sexual ethics and the sacrament of marriage.

Right away, anyone who reads this story needs to answer this basic question: Who who gets to decide what is in the Catholic doctrinal “core”? If the answer is the individual Catholic, as opposed to the doctrines and tradition of the Church as embodied in the Church itself, why can’t the faith that results accurately be called “Protestant”?

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. It appears that someone, somewhere has decided that it depends on (and I can hear several regular GetReligion readers clicking the comment button as I type) whether the believer making these kinds of decisions is a member of the Roman Catholic Church or the American Catholic Church. Thus, we read:

American Catholics have by and large remained loyal to the core teachings and sacraments of their faith, but increasingly tune out the hierarchy on issues of sexual morality, according to a new study released Monday (Oct. 24)

The sweeping survey shows that over the last quarter-century, U.S. Catholics have become increasingly likely to say that individuals, not church leaders, have the final say on abortion, homosexuality, and divorce and remarriage. That trend holds true across generational and ideological divides, and even applies to weekly Mass attenders, according to the survey, which has been conducted every six years since 1987.

“It’s the core creedal sacramental issues that really matter to American Catholics, more than the external trappings of church authority,” said Michele Dillon, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire and a co-author of the report, in releasing the report at the National Press Club.

A key element of the survey is that the number of “moderately committed” Catholics is rising and the number of “highly committed” is in decline. It would be interesting to know more about how those two groups are reflected in Catholic pews on a typical Sunday morning.

So what is in the “core,” according to American Catholics? The survey writers, RNS reports, agree that:

Across the board, Catholics tend to agree on four key markers — the resurrection of Jesus (73 percent), helping the poor (67 percent), devotion to the Virgin Mary (64 percent), and the centrality of the sacraments (63 percent) — as core to their Catholicism.

Opposition to abortion (40 percent) and to same-sex marriage (35 percent), and the authority of the Vatican (30 percent) and support for a celibate, all-male clergy (21 percent) were further down the list.

Now here is my key question: What separates the “core” doctrines of the moderately committed Catholics from the “core” doctrines of the highly committed? In particular, what separates these two groups in terms of their understanding of what it means to be committed to the “centrality of the sacraments”?

I predict that this can be summed up in one word — “confession.”

The bottom line: I would love to know if it contains a question (a) about the centrality of the Sacrament of Penance and (b) how the answers that American Catholics give on that question align with their beliefs about sex, marriage, abortion, etc.

Once again, we need to ask: How many “sweats the details” Catholics are there these days, the kind who make regular confessions of their sins and seek forgiveness?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will

    The really outrageous part is assigning abortion to “sexual morality” (and the role of the increasing open view that anything goes as long as it is “just about sex”.)

  • Will

    What nobody dares ask is, how does belief in the Resurrection, works of charity and “the centrality of the sacraments” (whatever that means) make them “Catholic” and not “Protestants” who presumably believe in none of those things? Every time I ask THAT question, I have been greeted by earsplitting silence.

    And how does Marian devotion distinguish ROMAN (or Western or Latin, for those about to complain) Catholics from Anglo-Catholics and Old Catholics, not to mention Orthodox?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Properly catechizing and evangelizing a community as huge as the Catholic Church in America is one daunting task–so polls like this one are not surprising. And with the almost impossible to escape media and culture promoting and propagandizing secular values the problem becomes even more serious.
    Of course, in the historical scheme of things polls are something very new. One has no idea how many Catholics were full “True Believers” at any particular time over the past two thousand years. There is plenty of historical anecdotal evidence that in many eras polls–if they had them- would have shown similar patterns as today. Yet the Church and her teachings endure. Maybe some “context” in stories about modern polls might be in order.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Let’s focus on journalism, if possible.

    The lede — is “core” the right word? What else could the writer have said?

  • Julia

    Before addressing “core”.

    One has no idea how many Catholics were full “True Believers” at any particular time over the past two thousand years.

    I’m suspecting that in the early years of polls, people were more likely to say what they thought was the right thing to answer. Today people are less hesitant to be honest.

  • Julia

    These quotes show the major problems with this survey:

    tune out the hierarchy on issues of sexual morality

    individuals, not church leaders, have the final say

    the external trappings of church authority,

    the authority of the Vatican

    church leaders have “the final say”

    externally imposed mandate from the hierarchy.”

    the authority of the hierarchy

    I can’t tell if the reporter doesn’t understand Catholicism or if the survey is really this obsessed with the AUTHORITY of the hierarchy.

    It sounds like these folks think the church has policies on vital issues that change depending on who is in office, just like the Presidency or the Senate and that Catholic are little robots obeying Italian masters. Terry is very astute to include the catechism’s emphasis that the church’s position on abortion has been there from the very beginning, it’s not a campaign issue that is up for debate or vote.

    It’s aggrivating to see such dissimilar things lumped together and compared.

    Views on abortion and care for the poor

    These are entirely different matters. Abortion is a sin and caring for the poor is a prudential matter. Helping the poor and other good actions are works of mercy. How and how much you help the poor or visit prisoners is prudential; abortion is not.

    It does come down to whether you believe that unrepented (and unconfessed) mortal sins will keep you out of heaven.
    People who aren’t particularly nice, but have no unrepented mortal sins, sneak into heaven – they are saints. Then there are those who have been declared saints – we think they are in heaven AND they have qualities that make them admirable role models, like giving your life to caring for the poor.

    And what does “good Catholic” mean to the reporter and the surveyors? The catechism would say that is a person in a state of grace; i.e., no unrepented, unconfessed mortal sin on the person’s soul. I don’t think that’s what they mean. For an article about religion, it’s very strange to focus on the qualities of a “good” lodge member.

    “Core” aspects of being a Catholic in good standing
    1. Belief in the tenets of the Nicene Creed
    2. Free from unrepented, unconfessed mortal sin, as defined by the Church.
    3. Acknowledgment that the Bishop of Rome is the successor of St Peter as head of the universal church.
    4. Abide by the laws of the Church as set out in the catechism.

    Everything else is optional, including such encouraged activities as works of mercy, veneration of the Blessed Mother and other acts of devotion.

  • Will

    It sounds like these folks think the church has policies on vital issues that change depending on who is in office, just like the Presidency or the Senate

    Just so. Archbishop Dolan complained that on taking office (http://blog.archny.org/?p=1473) he was asked by a reporter how his “policy on gay marriage” would differ from his predecessor’s. He attempted to convey that this was a matter of church teaching, not “policy” that can be changed at will.

  • sari

    “Once again, we need to ask: How many “sweats the details” Catholics are there these days, the kind who make regular confessions of their sins and seek forgiveness?”

    A short web search found this, a bare bones survey done by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown U.


    Bottom line, most American Catholics participate rarely or not at all in the sacrament of reconciliation.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I was taught that Catholic believing is a woven whole, and that pulling any one thread (as it were) risks a complete unraveling. The notion of a “core” doctrine would not fit into that framework, which I have read applied in the Anglican context.

  • Francis


    You are a bit confused about the survey’s authors; it is not CARA, but was instead initiated by the National Catholic Reporter. You can see the full survey details at:


  • sallyr

    I don’t claim to know the details on how this survey was conducted, but in the past these kinds of splits between views of “ordinary Catholics” and “the hierarchy” have been greatly skewed by failing to differentiate between “self-described Catholics” and “Catholics who attend Mass weekly.”

    Many people call themselves “Catholic” based on their heritage or simply as a cultural matter. My un-baptized nephew who has never practiced the faith calls himself Catholic because his parents were Catholic. His views on social questions are completely un-influenced by Church teaching, but he has gone to Mass with the family on Christmas many times. Now in his 30′s he calls himself a Catholic.

    When pollsters separate out “church-practicing Catholics” from nominally Catholics, the result is that the survey tends to show much more consistency with Church teachings.

  • sallyr

    From the “methodology” section, it does appear, as I suspected, that the sampling is based on “Self-identified Catholics” :


    This survey was conducted online among a sample of 1,442 self-identified Catholic adults who are part of the Knowledge Networks’ KnowledgePanel. The KnowledgePanel is a nationally representative probability sample of the U.S. adult population.

  • Tom B

    I know this has been dealt with before, but here again we have the mysterious authority of the Vatican, the msm is always going on about. The Vatican is: a building (mainly a museum). It has no authority, or teachings! Did they mean the authority of the Pope? Now belief in that is pretty much the definition of Catholic. If they had asked that, sadly the results might have been the same, but at least the question would have made sense.

  • Julia

    Unfortunately even Italian press uses the term “THE Vatican”.

    If you read deeper, the Italian papers are reporting in general about the Curia and various committees and commissions, but they don’t make any distinctions between Church and state matters. Of course, in Italy the Holy See and the doings of the Curia are watched & reported like politics. The Holy See is, after all, a political entity and was formerly a rather substantial portion of Italy. That nuance of Italian coverage is not often recognized in later American news reporting derived from the Italian coverage.


  • TeaPot562

    It is said that the two largest denominations in the USA are: 1) Catholics who attend Mass weekly; and 2) self-described Catholics who attend mass perhaps twice a year (Easter and Christmas). The first group would have substantially different views than the second group; but even the first group would have some whose statements would not match official church teachings. We are all in need of more and better catechesis (and in many cases, courses in Bible Study or scriptures.)

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    As far as the term “core” goes. It is really hard to find a word that does not take a side. You could call them uncontroversial doctrines. Calling them core or central to distinguish them from sexual morality does imply they matter more. That is something conservative Catholics would not accept but liberal Catholics would. I don’t know how you choose neutral language. Every word is coded one way or the other. Really the most descriptive word I can think of is “counter-cultural.” These issues are where modern western culture find Catholicism to be unreasonable and even nuts.

  • Will

    TomB: We have seen in past stories how some functionary somewhere in the Curia, a diocesan bishop, and someone being quoted by someone else in a story in L’Osservatore all become “the Vatican” in “news” stories.

  • Julia

    As far as the term “core” goes. It is really hard to find a word that does not take a side. You could call them uncontroversial doctrines. Calling them core or central to distinguish them from sexual morality does imply they matter more.

    To me “core” is the minimum necessary to be in communion with the Pope and in a state of grace in order to get to heaven. “Uncontroversial” has nothing to do with it. The Catholic Church is not a democracy. Some things are absolutely necessary, according to 2,000 years of history; other things are strongly encouraged but if you don’t do them it doesn’t keep you out of heaven.

    Most of us think the search for what is the least you have to do is problematic. You would hope that being a Catholic inspires you to go beyond what is absolutely necessary, but we are all sinners and fall short.

    It goes back to the “works” controversy. Do good works earn you a place in heave or is it avoidance of sin and repentence and atonement for the sin you do commit that are the “core” issue. Heavens – we’re back in the 16th century in this discussion. And it seems that the peace and justice folks are on the side of “works”.